Why buy a big car?
There are many reasons, of course. Interior volume is often the leading factor — space and comfort for the driver and passengers, and enough room for their cargo.
But another reason many folks seek larger cars is that bigger, more-expensive models often deliver a higher grade of refinement. They’re quieter, and they ride more smoothly. They look more elegant or mature. They feel more confidently planted even at high speeds. They aren’t cheap, basic transportation — they’re a cut above.
But not every big car offers those qualities. Instead, you’ll regularly find one that’s just as underwhelming as an economy car, albeit with some extra leg room.
If you’re looking for a car that feels satisfyingly non-basic, and don’t need maximum interior volume, you’ll want to consider the Chevrolet Cruze. It’s a compact four-door sedan or five-door hatchback that’s more affordable and fuel-efficient than a larger class of vehicle, competing against such models as the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and Hyundai Elantra.
Drive the Cruze back-to-back with one of those vehicles, and the Chevrolet’s qualities can shine through. It’s not that it will necessarily blow you away. But you’ll like the direct, well-weighted steering that’s conveniently light without feeling loose and sloppy. You’ll value the engine that stays mild-mannered and muted even when you put your foot down. You’ll appreciate the comfortable, supportive front seats and respect the fuss-free, user-friendly control layout.
That said, the Cruze doesn’t look much like a premium car. The sedan in particular could blend in easily at the Enterprise lot, with gentle curves and an anonymously aerodynamic body. It’s handsome, yes, but it’s not a head-turner. That said, this styling restraint will be an asset to the right buyer — economy cars that try too hard to look fancy can run the risk of looking silly.
The tested Cruze hatchback is a little more aggressive, with a hunched-forward silhouette that makes it look sportier, more dynamic. The tested car wore blacked-out wheels with red stripes, among other appearance add-ons. That said, even the sportiest-looking Cruze still looks milder than even the base Honda Civic hatchback.
Inside the cabin, even the tested Cruze is pretty simple. Some curves on the upper dashboard keep the car from looking too plain without interfering with its utility. It’s a refreshing contrast to cars that treat radio controls as a styling statement — rather than a way to control the radio. To turn up the volume on the Civic, for example, you jab at a touchscreen; in the Cruze, you twirl a dial that’s easy to find by touch.
The Cruze also includes a touchscreen; it’s seven inches across on the base model, and the tested car included the eight-inch upgrade. All models include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, and their graphics look crisp and modern — a cut above the Civic, Corolla, or Sentra.
Those three cars do beat the Cruze for rear-seat space. It’s not too tough to fit two adults into the rear seat, but they won’t have room to stretch out. And a third adult will likely end up with knees squeezed between the two front seats. Cargo space is excellent, at least; the sedan’s trunk is among the best in its class, and the hatchback’s rear seat folds down especially easily to create a spacious cargo hold.
Compared to a larger car, you will also likely miss some acceleration pep. Most Cruzes have a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 153 horsepower, which is decent but unremarkable even among economy cars. The Cruze’s engine remains impressively quiet even when it’s working hard, which helps keep the car from feeling underpowered, but true velocity can’t be faked.
EPA fuel economy ratings are excellent, ranging from 31 to 33 miles per gallon in mixed driving for most 1.4-liter models, and even hitting 40 mpg on the highway in the most efficient configuration. However, the tested car averaged only about 31 mpg in a week of mostly highway driving.
The Cruze is also offered with a class-exclusive diesel engine, which boosts highway fuel economy to up to 52 mpg. This engine costs about $3,000 extra and does little for city mileage, so consider your driving habits carefully before committing to it.
A note of caution: If you’re interested in a compact car because you’re looking for a super-low price, you may want to look elsewhere. The Cruze’s base price is pretty tempting — $16,975 — but it soars more quickly than most competitors. You have to spend nearly $3,000 more if you want an automatic transmission, and $2,000 more to get cruise control and power-operated mirrors. Some increasingly common high-tech safety features are also limited to the top Premier model or aren’t offered at all.
The Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Ford Focus, and Toyota Corolla all cost several thousand dollars less than a comparably-equipped Cruze, especially once you factor in discounts and haggling. They’re the models you should consider first if cost is paramount.
But if you’d otherwise need a larger vehicle to get the refinement you desire, the Cruze is already a pretty good deal. Shop it most closely against the Honda Civic, which is roomier and has more impressive safety features, but which has more polarizing styling and less user-friendly controls; and the Mazda3, which is sportier but less spacious.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.